“When the Iron Bird Flies” — An interview with director/producer Amber Bemak

In the editing room: Amber Bemak and Victoria Hitchcock

In production: Amber Bemak (left) and fellow producer/director Victress Hitchcock

By Danny Fisher for Buddhadharma News

Last week, Shambhala SunSpace told you about, and shared video from, When the Iron Bird Flies – “a documentary-in-progress, seeking to give the world a comprehensive look at the impact Tibetan Buddhism is having on Western culture” – and how you can help the filmmakers finish the project.

I spoke to Amber Bemak, one of the film’s two directors and producers (the other is Chariot Productions founder Victress Hitchcock) for more about this important documentary.

What can you tell us about When the Iron Bird Flies — the film itself, as well the production up to this point?

The film is an honest and direct exploration of the contemporary cultural interactions which are taking place between Tibetan Buddhism and Western Culture from as many angles as possible. It weaves together an intricate tapestry of interviews with contemporary teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, stories of Western practitioners, archival footage, and striking images of modern life that illuminate and make accessible the Buddha’s core teachings.

Our characters include:

- A German nun who we see become the first woman in the history of the Tibetan Buddhist world to receive the degree of Geshe (equivalent to a PhD).

- A young man who, after living on the streets as a homeless youth, moves to India and begins an intensive study of Buddhist philosophy in an all-Tibetan college.

- A man who spent thirteen years in prison, where he developed a deep connection with Tibetan Buddhist practice, and who now teaches all over the world. We see his personal life integrate his understanding of the teachings with the care of his dying partner.

- A young woman who leaves her job and a fast-paced party life in New York City to spend five months in solitary retreat in the mountains of Colorado.

We have recently finished our three-year production period on the film, and are now in the middle of post-production. The film is scheduled to premiere this summer at BuddhaFest.

Why did you choose the subject of Tibetan Buddhism coming West?

The subject was chosen by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who has been the main inspiration behind this project.  Vicki (my collaborator) and I both thought that since we are in such an interesting moment, really the birth and beginning of Tibetan Buddhism going all over the world, that a film would be an appropriate medium in which to share this moment with a wide audience.

Did Tsoknyi Rinpoche say anything about why he saw this subject as an immediate priority for a film versus another subject?

Here’s a quote from Tsokyni Rinpoche which is on our Kickstarter page: “I am an increasing believer in the power of inspired filmmaking to convey the essence of living dharma. Many people, dharma students or not, who have seen Blessings, a film about the Nangchen Nuns in Eastern Tibet, were deeply affected, and for some it changed their lives in a meaningful way. I am pleased to again be working with the makers of Blessings, Victress Hitchcock and Amber Bemak, on a new film that tells the evolving story of how Tibetan dharma, moving from the monasteries and retreat caves of the East to the rapidly changing and speedy modern world, is affecting the 21st century. I have faith that this film will inspire many people to explore these precious and ever-timely teachings. I know that the film will be of great benefit in these difficult times.”

Speaking of Kickstarter, you’ve just launched your campaign for the film there. Would you tell us about that, and other ways interested readers can help serve the film?

Kickstarter is a great place for people like us, who have already received a lot of support for our film, but who need a final contribution to fully finish it.  The great thing about Kickstarter is that even if you contribute $5, it adds up! Another way to help out the film is to spread the word to friends or different groups who may be interested. This is going to be a very important film, and we are really excited about the Kickstarter campaign for it.

You note in the literature about the film that you all are “a group of experienced filmmakers who are longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.” As both a seasoned dharma practitioner and filmmaker, I’m curious to hear you say a little something about the meeting of those two things in your life. How has practice influenced your filmmaking? Similarly, how has your life in the arts influenced you as a practitioner?

My Buddhist practice and my film practice are always completely functioning together.  My deepest artistic influence is what arises from the simple practice of looking at the mind.

The mind creates stories and patterns, and so does film. Through Buddhist practice, we have a chance to investigate these stories, their structural makeup, and the way they function and interact with external factors. Through filmmaking, we also have the opportunity to do this. I believe film has an incredible power to help foster awareness in viewers, on outer, inner, and deep levels.

On a less philosophical note, film reaches a lot of people and is easy to digest.  We are living in a heavily media-saturated society. So I think it is important to have Buddhist films in the world.

What have you learned about the issue of Buddhism coming West as a result of making this film?

From the process of making this film, I have learned that Tibetan Buddhism coming to the West is an extremely diverse issue. Even the word “West” embodies so many different realities and countries. I have gotten the opportunity to speak with a wide range of people about their interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism, and how they are integrating the practices into their lives or their communities. Also I’ve had the chance to speak with many Tibetan Lamas and Buddhist teachers about how they see Dharma fitting into Western culture.

Through speaking with all of these people, I’ve realized that “the West” has something to offer back to Tibetan Buddhism as well. Historically, Buddhism takes on qualities of the cultures it takes root in. There are some ways in which Tibetan Buddhism could benefit from liberal Western cultural values, for example, issues surrounding women’s rights. So I have come to begin thinking of this as more of a back-and-forth exchange, as opposed to a situation where “the West” gets to just take/appropriate from Tibetan Buddhism. I think it is an exciting time for this exchange to be taking place.

To pitch in to the completion of When The Iron Bird Flies, click here and visit the film’s Kickstarter page.